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Primary school (Continued)

BY SETH GITELL

• Expectations game. Here’s something you haven’t heard much about amid the reams of copy that have already been written on the upcoming New Hampshire primary: the last time a sitting Massachusetts senator participated in the New Hampshire primary, he was handily defeated. In 1980, Carter trounced Senator Ted Kennedy by 10 points. (Carter’s campaign was run by then-up-and-coming politico Jeanne Shaheen.) We’re certain to hear more about this as Kerry’s people try to lower expectations for the senator.

The dynamic is a simple one. Everyone is so sophisticated about politics and the media that it’s no longer enough to win the New Hampshire primary; a candidate must win the expectations game as well. If not, a candidate can win the vote but "lose" in post–Election Day analysis.

To appreciate the importance of expectations, look at how they played out for Clinton. Some assume that he won the New Hampshire primary in 1992. In fact, however, he lost — by eight points. In some circles, that would be considered a drubbing.

But Clinton had suffered a series of blows to his campaign in January and February of that year, just weeks before the primary. First were revelations from Gennifer Flowers, an Arkansas lounge singer, that she and Clinton had engaged in a long-time affair. Even worse, she had a tape of a phone call from Clinton, in which the Arkansas governor described New York governor Mario Cuomo as a "mean son of a bitch" who acted like a "Mafioso" — which caused another furor all on its own. Then the press obtained a copy of an old letter Clinton had written to an Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps recruiter thanking him for "saving" him from the draft, thus allowing Clinton to avoid military service in Vietnam. Before you could say "expectations game," Clinton went from being the front-runner to trailing Tsongas by almost 20 points. Tsongas won the primary and Clinton came in a strong second amid a field of five candidates. That night, Clinton was the first candidate to get on television. He thanked New Hampshire voters and dubbed himself the "comeback kid." The rest is history.

The media discounted Tsongas’s victory because the former Massachusetts senator came from Lowell — less than 20 miles from Nashua. They reasoned that, in light of this "home field" advantage and Clinton’s campaign woes, Tsongas’s margin of victory should have been much larger. Lost in that spin-meistering was the fact that Tsongas lacked the advantages in field organization and money enjoyed by Clinton and several of the other candidates. At the Kennedy School forum on the New Hampshire primary, Tsongas campaign manager Dennis Kanin voiced annoyance over the extent to which the media and public failed to give Tsongas his due for a difficult victory: "The amazing thing [that] happened in New Hampshire ... was that Paul Tsongas won New Hampshire, considering that we were outspent by Clinton, and not just Clinton, but by Kerrey and Harkin, by ratios of three to one and two to one."

Expectations are so much a part of the game that New Hampshire voters themselves take them into account when deciding whom to vote for. One reason McCain’s candidacy took off in 2000 was the air of "inevitable" victory surrounding George W. Bush prior to the election. Under the guidance of political strategist Karl Rove, Bush had largely stayed home in Texas and waged a "front porch" campaign. (Rove modeled the strategy on the 1896 presidential campaign of William McKinley, who basically stumped from his front porch, making politicos come to him.) Bush, accordingly, locked up the support of the New Hampshire Republican establishment, including Senator Judd Gregg and Congressman Charles Bass. Thus, New Hampshire voters were already open to an alternative when McCain began aggressively making the rounds in the fall of 1999.

Early edge: anyone but Kerry. Almost lost in the early buzz you hear about the 2004 primary are these historic results: Tsongas won only 33 percent of the New Hampshire vote; Dukakis in 1988 won only 36 percent. There’s an early perception that Kerry will have to win New Hampshire by 50 percent for it to be considered a real win. Given the number of candidates in the race, it will be almost mathematically impossible for Kerry to finish that high. And he has another problem. Vermont’s Dean is beginning to view the liberal New Hampshire counties such as Cheshire, Sullivan, and Grafton — which abut Vermont, where Dean’s influence is obviously strong — as his natural base. Local political activists note that antiwar sentiment is strongest in these counties; a recent op-ed in the Forward quoted Dean as telling a group of voters in the Grafton County town of Lebanon that "if we had a renewable-energy policy we would not be sending our kids to Iraq." Furthermore, in 2000, Bradley — to whom Dean bears some similarities — pulled even with Gore in Cheshire and Sullivan counties and won Grafton County by 1500 votes. A January PoliticsVT.com report described Dean as having impressed a house party in the Sullivan County town of Cornish. And Dean appears frequently on the local television news on WNNE. The station, located in White River, Vermont, lies across the Connecticut River from Grafton County, and its signal reaches across Western New Hampshire.

Independent voters. The giant wild card in the New Hampshire primary is the block of independents who now make up the majority of New Hampshire voters. Of registered New Hampshire voters, 37.6 percent are independents, while 36.7 are Republicans and 25.5 percent are Democrats. Next year’s primary will be the first time independents are expected to vote in the Democratic primary in huge numbers. To some extent, the politics of many New Hampshire residents are a mystery, because so many people are so new. New Hampshire lost 300,000 people after the recession in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but it has gained 400,000 since. In 2000, three times as many independents voted in the Republican primary, which was won by McCain, than voted in the Democratic primary. (Most independents who voted in the Democratic primary supported Bradley.)

The independent-voter factor in the New Hampshire primary muddles up election scenarios in confusing ways. Right now, all the primary candidates are spending the bulk of their time trying to woo traditional Democratic activists, whose values in the Granite State are much like those of activists everywhere. Antiwar and anti-Bush sentiment runs high. But when the primary does come, liberal activists may not decide the day. History shows that in 1992, independent voters may have put the two most conservative Democratic candidates, Tsongas and Clinton, over the top. The two most liberal candidates that year, Tom Harkin and Jerry Brown, ended up with only a combined 18 percent of the vote.

Nobody knows to what extent independent voters will choose to participate in the Democratic primary — especially if Bush’s popularity holds. But being New Hampshirites, many may want to participate. Buckley, the Manchester activist, says canvassing independents is difficult, but he expects them to be a factor in 2004. "My instinct tells me that even those independents who like Bush will want to participate in the primary," he says.

Early edge: who knows? It’s possible that some independents will gravitate to the rightward-leaning Lieberman — although New Hampshire politicos are quick to liken him to former Ohio senator John Glenn, who ran with money and a national reputation in 1984 and then collapsed in the primary because he didn’t have a base. Dean’s style could catch on with independents, who, throughout New England, align with the socially liberal politics Dean espouses, even as he embraces fiscally conservative policies. Kerry partisans, meanwhile, point out that the voting record and profile of their candidate — a thoughtful and moderate Northeastern senator with a good environmental record — is not unlike the profile independents liked in Bradley. In the absence of accurate polling, this is not a factor we are likely to know much about until primary day.

NEW HAMPSHIRE is a quirky political state that witnessed a sweep of Republican candidates in 2002. Governor Craig Benson won not so much through grassroots campaigning as by having spent more than $10 million on television time. (Former governor Gregg insisted during our meeting that Benson did more than his share of old-fashioned campaigning, but Benson’s primary victory over the better-known former senator Gordon Humphrey can be attributed to his blitz of TV advertising.) Popular Democratic candidate Jeanne Shaheen was defeated by the son of the decidedly unpopular John Sununu, a former governor and White House chief of staff in the first Bush administration. The New Hampshire that was looking more and more like a tax-friendly, socially liberal haven for Democrats was suddenly revealed as truly different from its neighbor to the south. This state, with its anti-tax and less socially liberal sentiments, will be the first battleground of Campaign 2004. We don’t yet know who will win. But attention to such factors as field organization, connecting with voters, managing the expectations game, and wooing both independents and hard-core Democrats will go a long way toward suggesting who will triumph in the long run.

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell@phx.com

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Issue Date: February 6 - 13, 2003
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